Last week I attended the annual TESOL convention in New York City. One presentation I found particularly informative was delivered by Fred Genesee of McGill University in Canada. His presentation was entitled, "Learning to Read a Second Language: What Does the Research Say and What Do We Do About It?" Although there are many things from his presentation I could comment on, I will only share a portion of his presentation that addresses how we can accommodate the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs) with reading difficulties.
First, to provide some context, here are a few interesting facts about ELLs with reading difficulties:
- Just because students have minority language status does not mean that they are at greater risk of reading impairment. In other words, ELLs are not at a greater risk of experiencing reading impairment than monolingual English students.
- The same proportion of ELLs and native English-speaking students have reading impairment (7-10%).
- ELLs are at greater risk for reading difficulties, but these difficulties are, according to Genesee, "responsive to early intervention and instructional accommodations." (Notice how the different terms "impairment" and "difficulties" are used.)
In identifying second language reading difficulties, Genesee says that "ELLs with word reading difficulties have the same profile as native English-speaking students with difficulties--poor phonological awareness, letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, etc." He also says regarding comprehension difficulties that "poor foundation skills [e.g. letter sounds, phonological awareness, vocabulary, decoding skills, print awareness, etc.] and poor academic oral language skills are probably a source of difficulty." Genesee asserts that early intervention is critical. He suggests using Response to Intervention (RTI) to "distinguish reading impairment from incomplete mastery of English." (View a documentary about RTI)
So what do we do? He suggests the following instructional accommodations to support ELLs with reading difficulties (which I feel could easily be implemented into an RTI model, or any teaching model that requires accommodations for ELLs):
- strategic use of students' first language
- use of familiar objects and experiences
- predictable and consistent routines
- clear instructions and expectations
- redundancy and repetition
- extended practice
- extended wait time
- comprehension checks
- pair work and cooperative learning
I like Genesee's concluding statement of his presentation: "ELLs are extremely resourceful learners with a unique bilingual reservoir of skills and experiences." As we provide appropriate accommodations and early intervention, we can draw upon our ELLs' "bilingual reservoir of skills and experiences" to help them conquer their reading difficulties.